The highest European Parliament election turnout in 20 years saw voters reject rising populism in favour of an institution it trusts and understands, writes Daniel Gros.
European Parliament elections used to be a boring affair, forsaken by voters and barely noticed by the media. However, the latest election, held in the last weekend of May, broke the mould, capturing attention as it confounded expectations.
Voter turnout, which had been declining since the first European Parliament election in 1979, increased sharply this time, reaching just over 50%. That is not only the highest turnout for a European Parliament election in 20 years, it is also higher than the 40% to 50% typical of a mid-term congressional election in the US.
Turnout excluding the UK, over 53%, was comparable to that of the 2016 US presidential election. A key factor driving the increase in participation was probably the rise of populist parties, but not for the reason you might think.
For some time, opinion polls have revealed rising support for EU membership, with citizens reporting more confidence in EU institutions than in national institutions.
So the spectre of Brexit, and the fear that populist forces in other countries would jeopardise the benefits of European integration, may have fuelled higher turnout. Yes, populist forces gained ground, but not nearly as much as some had feared.
Moreover, none of the major populist parties proposed leaving the EU (or the euro), whereas 16 of them advocated such an outcome just a year ago.
Nonetheless, across countries, there is only a weak correlation between the EU’s popularity and participation in the European Parliament elections. In some countries — Slovakia, for example — people are happy to be in the EU, but still see no point in voting for its parliament, with only one fifth of the population showing up at the polls.
A second surprise — again reflecting a widespread desire to remain in the EU — was that the pro-European centre largely held its dominant position, with losses by the two major parties (Conservatives and Social Democrats) mostly offset by gains for the Liberals and especially the Greens.
This new centre is more fractured, and a coalition of at least three parties will be needed for a majority. However, this reflects the political reality on the ground: in many EU member states, the two largest parties cannot count on winning a combined majority of the vote.
The recent election campaign also stood out for the way European issues were discussed. In line with the old adage that ‘all politics is local’, issues were still framed in terms of national circumstances and interests.
However, when Europe was invoked, there was an underlying sense of solidarity.
Those invocations mostly focused on security, especially immigration, which opinion polls indicate remains the challenge for Europe that people care about most. Many campaigns featured rhetoric about ‘taking back control’.
However, unlike in the UK, where that phrase means controlling the national border, on the European continent it meant strengthening the external EU border. A similar shift can be seen on other issues, especially trade. Brexiteers have repeatedly argued that the UK needs to regain control over its own trade policy.
However, in view of US president Donald Trump’s erratic moves, the EU’s other member states have reached the opposite conclusion: In a more uncertain world, only a strong Europe can prevent them from being at the mercy of the US and China.
The election’s outcome holds important implications not only for the future of the EU, but also, and more immediately, for the European Parliament itself. The fact that the EU’s legislature does not embody the ‘one person, one vote’ principle has long impeded it from becoming a true parliament.
Instead, seats are allocated to member states according to the principle of so-called degressive proportionality: The number of voters per MEP shrinks in the smaller member states and grows in the larger ones.
A large member state such as Germany, Italy, or France has one MEP for every 800,000 citizens or so. Among the smallest member states, the ratio is closer to 1:100,000. In other words, a single vote in a small EU country can be ‘worth’ nearly eight times more than a vote in a large country.
The German Constitutional Court has cited degressive proportionality in arguing that the European Parliament cannot be regarded as fully democratically legitimate. However, this claim disregards the dual foundations of the EU, which is a union of both member states and their people.
In a sense, the European Parliament has much in common with the US system. On the one hand, the body can be viewed as a combination of the two chambers of the US Congress: The Senate (which has two representatives per state, regardless of size) and the House of Representatives (where members represent districts of near-equal size).
On the other hand, the European Parliament’s structure resembles that created by the US electoral college, which gives greater weight in presidential elections to voters in less populous states.
In the US, these differences can be decisive: in three of the last seven presidential elections, the victor either did not win a majority of the popular vote (Bill Clinton in 1992), or actually won fewer votes than the loser (George W Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump).
Fortunately for Europe, the over- representation of MEPs from smaller member states has not become a major issue. This perhaps reflects the fact that there has been no clear, permanent schism between east and west, north and south, or small and large.
In the US, by contrast, there is a longstanding and significant divide in political attitudes between the more populous coastal states and less densely populated inland states. Overall, the European Parliament seems to have taken a small but important step toward becoming a true expression of Europeans’ popular will.
Many issues are still decided by national leaders in the European Council, which derives its legitimacy from national-level elections. However, the balance of authority between European and national leaders now seems to be less lopsided.
Daniel Gros is director of the Centre for European Policy Studies
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019